It is no secret that American troops in Iraq routinely use unmanned air vehicles—flying robots, in essence—in reconnaissance and combat missions. Far less well known are robots that operate on the ground, including a new one that can look for danger around corners or in areas under heavy fire and can be carried around in a soldier’s backpack.
The robot is known as a Dragon Runner and was designed by Hagen Schempf of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The device, which is currently undergoing classified tests in Iraq, is about the size and weight of a house cat and, like a feline, is designed to always land on its feet. It can be tossed through a glass window three stories up and hit the ground running, upside down, or down side up, at more than 20 miles per hour.
A handheld controller, which lets soldiers remotely send Dragon Runner out as an advance scout, vibrates when the robot’s motion or audio sensors are triggered. An onboard color video camera with infrared illumination can function with nothing more than moonlight.
A larger, somewhat simpler device, called PackBot, is already in use in Iraq and Afghanistan; scores of other military robots are now under development. “But there’s nothing like Dragon Runner in terms of its combined features,” Schempf says. Dragon Runner also has a fairly low price tag: So far, its entire development program has cost less than $3 million.